How to improve your academic writing writing

How to improve your
academic writing
In a recent survey, academic staff
at the University identified the
interrelated skills of
and reasoning as the two most
important skills for
in higher education; when asked
which skills students most often
lacked, writing was again at the
top of their list.
What is the
purpose of this
Although the nature of universitylevel study has changed in recent
years, not least because of
technology, one element has
remained constant, guaranteeing
success to students with a
mastery of it: writing.
This booklet has been structured into two main
sections: (i) Punctuation and Grammar, and (ii)
Reasoning. These are preceded by sections on
Structuring an Essay and Parts of Speech
(essential reading if you have forgotten how to
tell your noun from your verb). In addition there
are also sections on Useful Tips, Commonly
Confused Words, Writing Support at Essex,
and Further Reading. It can be read from cover
to cover, or can be dipped into with a specific
problem in mind.
If you want to be true to yourself – to be
faithful to what you really think by expressing
yourself clearly and precisely – then you
should care about language… irrespective of
the fact that it will improve your grades.
In a recent survey, academic staff at the
University identified the interrelated skills of
essay-writing and reasoning as the two most
important skills for success in higher
education; when asked which skills students
most often lacked, essay-writing was again at
the top of their list. Needless to say, writing
ability is also highly prized by employers.
The purpose of this booklet is to provide a
reference guide to some of the most common
mistakes in academic writing and to heighten
your appreciation of the logic and beauty of
language, a good command of which will help
you to think more clearly and deeply, and have
a positive impact on every aspect of your
academic work, not just assignments.
The examples that feature in this booklet are
adapted from an analysis of first-year
academic work, covering all faculties. The
analysis found that most students are making
the same mistakes. The good news is that
these mistakes can be easily corrected by
learning some simple rules, and it is never too
late to learn.
Writing is at the very heart of
academic life. Good writing makes
a good student. This booklet
provides useful guidance and
helpful tips certain to set you on
course to a clear expression of the
plain sense of things, not only at
university but in the outside world
as well. An assimilation of its
content will bring immediate
benefits. I recommend that you
read it carefully before you write
your next essay!
Dr Leon Burnett, Dean of Faculty of
Humanities and Comparative Studies
1. Structuring an Essay
2. Parts of Speech
3. Punctuation and Grammar (the most common mistakes)
3.1 Bad syntax
3.2 Inappropriate use of tense
3.3 Incorrect use of prepositions
3.4 Incorrect use of colons and semi-colons
3.5 Incorrect use of apostrophes
3.6 Incorrect use of speech marks
3.7 Confusing singular and plural
3.8 Using unnecessary words
3.9 Using inappropriate or informal phrases
3.10 Not starting new sentences when appropriate
3.11 Incorrect use of commas
3.12 Mixing pronouns
3.13 Inappropriate use of definite article
3.14 Inappropriate or incorrect use of capital letters
3.15 Using ‘and’ instead of ‘to’
3.16 Insufficient proof-reading
4. Reasoning (the most common mistakes)
4.1 Poor structure
4.2 Poor referencing techniques
4.3 Poor or unclear reasoning
4.4 Generalisations
4.5 Speculations and assertions
4.6 Poor choice of vocabulary
4.7 Misusing or misquoting a well-known phrase
4.8 Making indirect assumptions
4.9 Inappropriate or inadvertent use of metaphor
5. Useful Tips
6. Commonly Confused Words
7. Writing Support at Essex
8. Further Reading
1. Structuring
an Essay
The conclusion is where you remind the reader
of what you have done – the main issues you
have addressed and what you have argued.
The conclusion should contain no new material.
Your conclusions should be clear, leaving the
reader in no doubt as to what you think; you
should also explain why your conclusions are
important and significant. As Stella Cottrell
(2003: 154) suggests, it may also be a good
idea to link your final sentence to the question
contained in the title. In size, the conclusion
should be no more than 10% of the essay.
Before we explore the micro issues of writing
(grammar and punctuation), it may help to
think about the macro issues, especially essay
structure. While your grammar and
punctuation may improve gradually over time,
you can take immediate and easy steps to
improve the way you structure your essays, for
which the following may be useful.
Reference list and/or
The introduction is where you provide a routemap for the reader and make clear how your
argument will develop (see opposite). One
effective approach is to outline the main issues
that you seek to address in your essay. It may
also be appropriate to explain how you interpret
the question. In size, the introduction should
generally be no more than 10% of the essay.
Appended to your essay should be a list of all
the sources you have referred to (a reference
list) and/or a list of all of the sources you have
consulted but not referred to within the essay
(a bibliography). Find out which is required by
your department and which referencing
system is preferred; it may be that they require
both, either separately or combined.
Main body
You should be able to sum up the
basic opinion or argument of your
essay in a couple of lines. It may
help to do this before you start
It is up to you to decide on the best way to
organise your essay. Whatever you decide,
make sure you adopt a systematic or logical
approach that is transparent to your readers.
Keep them informed about the steps in your
exposition (the presentation of your viewpoint).
You are not writing a mystery or thriller, so do
not leave the reader in suspense until the end;
make your argument explicit and make sure
every paragraph in the main body of your
essay links to the ones before and after it. If it
helps – and if it is appropriate – you could
divide your essay into sections and
subsections, giving each section a
subheading or summary in a few words; you
can always remove subheadings afterwards.
‘However they are worded, all
assignment titles contain a central
question which has to be answered.
Your main task is to apply what you
know – however brilliant your piece
of writing, if it does not ‘answer the
question’ you may get no marks at
all.’ (Cottrell 2003: 154)
Essay Checklist
What is an argument?
You may have come across the term
‘argument’ in an academic context and felt
confused, not fully understanding its
meaning. Outside of academia, ‘argument’
usually refers to a disagreement. It tends to
be an event; a physical occurrence. This may
be the sense of the word that is most familiar
to you, but an ‘academic argument’
describes something quite different: it is
essentially a point of view.
1. Essay Title
Does the essay have the full and correct
essay title?
2. Introduction
Is there a significant introduction that
identifies the topic, purpose and structure
of the essay?
Are key words or concepts identified in
the introduction?
A good argument (a ‘sound’ argument) is a
point of view that is presented in a clear and
logical way, so that each stage of reasoning
is transparent and convincing; it will include
evidence and possible counter-arguments. It
may even help to make the assumption that
the reader is in disagreement with you.
3. Main Body
Is there plenty of evidence that you have
done the required reading?
Have you put each main point in a
separate paragraph?
You will not only find arguments of this kind in
academic contexts. Whenever you read a
paper, or watch TV, or listen to a friend, you
are presented with an argument – a point of
view that has been articulated with the
express purpose of convincing you of its
validity or truth. Almost anywhere where
there is thought and communication, there is
argument; although the same intellectual
standards and formal structure that are
imposed in an academic context may be
absent. The editorial sections of quality
newspapers are a particularly good place to
look for arguments.
Are the paragraphs logically linked?
Is each main point/argument supported by
evidence, argument or examples?
Are the ideas of others clearly referenced?
4. Conclusion
Is the conclusion directly related to the
Is it based on evidence and facts?
Does it summarise the main points?
Is it substantial (a paragraph or more)?
When constructing your argument, the first
thing to do is to read the essay question,
then read it again. What does it ask you to
do? Assess? Evaluate? Discuss? Compare?
Each of these ‘question-words’ is different.
Make sure that your argument matches the
question-word. Once you are certain of your
point of view, start thinking about the kind of
evidence that would stand up in court.
5. References
Have you referenced all of your sources?
Are all of the references accurate?
Are all of the references in the essay
shown in the bibliography and vice versa?
6. Layout
Is it neat and legibly presented?
2. Parts of Speech
Each word in a sentence can be
role it plays.
defined by the
The different roles are known as
‘parts of speech’. In order to fully
understand the examples in this
booklet, it may help to
re-familiarise yourself
the basic parts of speech.
A verb is the part of speech that people tend
to identify most easily. In schools it is known
as a ‘doing word’ – an action word – which
describes what the nouns in the sentence are
doing, i.e. swimming, walking, eating, thinking,
growing, learning, drinking, misbehaving. In the
sentence, ‘Sam studies in the library’, ‘studies’
is the verb.
An adjective is a describing word that gives
the noun a quality that makes it more specific.
For example, any number of adjectives could
be used to ‘qualify’ the noun ‘lecture’. It could
be an ‘excellent lecture’, a ‘long lecture’, or a
‘boring lecture’ – ‘excellent’, ‘long’ and ‘boring’
are all adjectives.
An adverb is a describing word, but for verbs,
not nouns. For example, ‘quickly’, ‘stupidly’ and
‘hurriedly’ are all adverbs (they often end
in ‘–ly’). They are used with verbs to make the
action more specific, e.g. ‘drink quickly’,
‘behave stupidly’, ‘work hurriedly’. In the
sentence, ‘the lecturer shouted loudly’, ‘loudly’
is the adverb.
A noun is an object – a thing – such as ‘team’,
‘girl’ or ‘car’. A ‘proper noun’ is the proper
name of the thing (if it has its own name) such
as ‘Colchester United’, ‘Nicole’, or ‘Porsche’.
Proper nouns have a capital letter. This shows
that what is being referred to is the proper
name (‘Porsche’) rather than the common or
collective name (‘car’).
Prepositions are words that describe the
position and movement of the nouns in a
sentence, such as ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘into’, ‘out’, ‘of’,
‘in’. They precede the noun, e.g. ‘to the
classroom’, ‘in the lecture’. For example, in the
sentence, ‘After being pushed into the lake, I
was stuck in the water’, ‘in’ and ‘into’ are both
prepositions; ‘in’ describes a position,
whereas ‘into’ describes movement.
A pronoun is a word that is used in place of a
noun, such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘him’, ‘her’, etc. Its
purpose is to avoid endless repetition of the
noun while ensuring that none of the meaning
of the sentence is lost. For example, the
sentence, ‘Abdul is punctual: he is always on
time for his tutorials’ is much better than
‘Abdul is punctual: Abdul is always on time for
Abdul’s tutorials.’
3. Punctuation and
‘Punctuation shouldn’t cause as
much fear as it does. Only about a
dozen marks
need to be
mastered and the guidelines are
simple. What’s more, you
can see the marks being well
applied every day in the serious
Martin Cutts, The Plain English Guide, OUP, 1995, p.80
Although this section also covers
grammar, misuse of punctuation
is at the heart of many of the
most common mistakes in
writing. Good punctuation makes
the relationship between words
in a sentence clear, while also
acting as a substitute for features
of speech such as pausing and
altering pitch and tone. Misusing
punctuation can be like talking
with a mouthful of food,
obscuring and obstructing the
intended meaning.
order the key words and phrases. If you are
struggling to make your meaning clear in a
sentence, try changing the word order.
3.2. Inappropriate use of tense
Make sure you use the correct tense – and be
consistent with it. When you are introducing
and discussing other people’s opinions, use
the present tense, e.g. ‘Mills believes’ or ‘Mills
claims’ rather than ‘Mills believed’ or ‘Mills
claimed’. By putting them in the past tense,
their opinions seem dated; it also suggests
that their views may have since changed.
It may, however, be appropriate to use the past
tense if the person in question has been dead
a long time, or was writing in a different era.
Student example: ‘A few years ago, Robert P.
Crease asked physicians what they think is the
most beautiful experiment of all time.’
3.1. Bad syntax
‘Syntax’ is the technical word that is used to
describe sentence structure. It is extremely
important, as a well-ordered sentence makes
meaning clear and concise, whereas a badlyordered sentence makes the reader (and
marker) work very hard to understand the
In this sentence, the author shifts tense. It
starts in the past tense (‘A few years ago,
Robert P. Crease asked physicians…’) then
moves into the present tense (‘… what they
think is the most beautiful experiment of all
time). As well as being confusing, the
statement could also be inaccurate, as the
physicians may have changed their minds
since they were asked. All that can be said
for certain is that the experiment they
identified was what they thought was the
most beautiful at the time.
Student example: ‘Although the current law for
establishing whether something is a fixture or
fitting can be argued to be rather messy and
In this sentence, the word order is, to use the
author’s own phrase, ‘rather messy and
incoherent’. A slight reordering, using the
same vocabulary, makes the sentence much
clearer and more logical: ‘Although it could be
argued that the current law for establishing
whether something is a fixture or fitting is
rather messy and incoherent…’
It is a common practice to use the future
tense in introductory sections of essays, for
example ‘The purpose of this essay will be
to explore….’ or ‘This essay will explore…’.
The future tense can sound uncertain and
unconfident, however: you can be more
assertive by writing in the present tense,
e.g. ‘The purpose of this essay is to
explore…’ or ‘This essay explores…’.
Playing around with syntax can transform
your sentence. Think about the best way to
described in the sentence. Think carefully
about the position and movement of nouns
in your sentences. Is so-and-so in or on
this-or-that? Is this-or-that being taken to
or from so-and-so?
3.3. Incorrect use of
What are prepositions? Prepositions are
words that describe the position and
movement of the nouns in a sentence (see
Parts of Speech to clarify your understanding).
They are very easy to use incorrectly, because
they often seem to sound right in a sentence.
The secret is to step back and think about
each one and whether it is describing the right
position or movement.
3.4. Incorrect use of colons and
Colons and semi-colons may look and sound
alike, but are actually very different. They can
generally be avoided, so only use them if you
are confident in your understanding.
Student example: ‘We have disconnected
ourselves with our fellow members of society
and no longer know the neighbours around us.
There are so many of us now that we seem to
of lost a sense of community and become
strangers on our society.’
Student example: ‘This problem can also be
seen in the following example; in a marriage
both the man and the woman…’
In this sentence, the author has used a semicolon where a colon should have been used.
The aim of the punctuation mark is to join the
two halves of the sentence together, which
are: (i) a claim or statement (‘This problem can
also be seen in the following example’) and (ii)
the explanation, example or proof (‘in a
marriage both the man and the woman…’).
Sometimes this use of a colon is referred to as
a ‘why-because’ marker (Cutts, 1995: 83).
In this example, the author has used the
wrong preposition in a number of places. In
the first part of the sentence, he or she has
misunderstood the relationship between the
subject (‘ourselves’) and the object (‘fellow
members of society’) of the sentence: you
cannot ‘disconnect with’, as ‘with’ means
‘together’, you can only disconnect ‘from’.
Semi-colons, on the other hand, are very
different from colons. Any two statements
(or clauses) that are separated by a
semi-colon should (i) be able to stand alone
as separate sentences, and (ii) be closely
connected in terms of their subject matter. For
example, ‘There are a number of different uses
for semi-colons; used in the right way, they
can be extremely versatile’.
In the second part of the sentence, the author
has made a mistake that is common in
conversation: using ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ (i.e.
‘we seem to of lost’ – of sounds a bit like
‘ave). If the author stripped the sentence down
and took out the clause (‘seem to’) which has
probably caused the confusion, the sentence
would read ‘There are so many of us now that
we of lost a sense of community’, which is
more obviously incorrect. In the final part of
the sentence, ‘on’ is used instead of ‘in’.
Crude as it may seem, the colon in the
human body provides a very helpful analogy
with the punctuation colon, particularly in
the way it functions as a ‘why-because
marker’ (note that colons can also be used
Correct use of prepositions shows clarity of
thought and a good understanding of the
relationships between everything that is
to introduce the following: a list of items; a
contrast; and direct speech). Physiologically,
the colon is the point at which one thing
(here, food) becomes another (in this case
waste). In the same way, a grammatical
colon separates (A) the introduction of
something, e.g. an idea or a claim, from (B)
the explanation for that idea or claim.
been ‘contracted’ – i.e. ‘It’s nothing to do
with me’ instead of ‘It is nothing to do with
me’; ‘She’s been a long time’ instead of
‘She has been a long time.’ As a general
rule, contractions should be avoided in
academic work.
3.5. Incorrect use of
Speech marks ‘do exactly what they say on the
tin’: they mark speech. Nonetheless, they are
still one of the most misused punctuation
3.6. Incorrect use of speech
Apostrophes are perhaps the most misused
punctuation mark of all. Described as ‘errant
tadpoles’ (Cutts, 1995: 89), they can, if used
incorrectly, completely obscure the intended
meaning of a sentence.
Student example: ‘In ‘The End of Education’,
Nils (2004) states that “the only thing that can
save the UK education system is a complete
Student example: ‘The law does not specify
other eventualities, such as a situation where a
lost item falls onto a landowners land…’
In this sentence, the author has used speech
marks (“_”) instead of inverted commas (‘_’).
In most disciplines speech marks should only
be used when something is being said, not
when something has been expressed in
writing. The majority of quotations in
academic work will therefore require inverted
commas, not speech marks, though you
should check the conventions of your
discipline to confirm this.
In this sentence, ‘landowners’ should be
‘landowner’s’, because the land belongs to the
landowner. Apostrophes indicate ownership:
‘the landowner’s land’ is another way of saying
‘the land of the landowner’.
Correct use of the apostrophe shows clarity of
thought and a good understanding of the
relationship between the nouns in a sentence.
Learn about apostrophes: they will help you to
think more clearly and help your reader to
understand and follow your argument better
(see Further Reading). Remember the rule that
the apostrophe generally goes before the ‘s’ if
the noun is singular (e.g. the dog’s dinner
meaning the dinner of the dog) and after the
‘s’ if the noun is plural (dogs’ dinner meaning
the dinner of the dogs).
The difference between speech marks
(sometimes called ‘double inverted
commas’) and inverted commas (‘single
inverted commas’) is very simple. One way
to distinguish them is to remember that
speech requires the physical presence of
two people, a speaker and a listener, hence
it needs double inverted commas: “speech
marks”. When something is being
referenced from a book, however, only one
person is present (the reader) hence ‘single
inverted commas’.
As well as indicating ownership, the other
common use of apostrophes is to show
that a letter is missing – that words have
Student example: ‘Being poor in society today
it does not cause as many problems for the
individual as it did many years ago.’
‘Most experienced writers rewrite
their work over and over, refining
their thoughts, finding a better way
of saying something, making a
long-winded section a bit briefer, or
adding more detail to develop an
idea.’ (Cottrell 2003: 146)
In the first line of this sentence, the pronoun ‘it’
is used in the place of ‘being poor’ (a pronoun
substitutes a noun; see Parts of Speech).
However, its inclusion is superfluous because
the reader does not need to be reminded of
the subject of the sentence. ‘It’ would be
necessary to start a new sentence in which
‘being poor’ is still the subject, but in a single
sentence it is unnecessary and confusing.
3.7. Confusing singular and
Nouns always specify number, i.e. whether they
are singular (‘dog’) or plural (‘dogs’). As well as
being consistent with the number, you must
make sure that your verbs match your nouns
(e.g. ‘the dog swims’ or ‘the dogs swim’).
3.9. Using inappropriate or
informal phrases
In recent years there has been an increase in
the number of informal modes of written
communication, such as emailing, texting, and
instant messaging. These have contributed to
a rise in the number of informal phrases that
appear in more formal writing, such as the
Student example: ‘The law of averages are too
In this sentence, the word ‘law’ is singular
(i.e. one in number); if it is intended to be
plural (more than one), it should be ‘laws’.
However, the author has used ‘are’, the plural
form of the verb, instead of ‘is’, the singular
(remember ‘the laws are’ and ‘the law is’).
Nouns and verbs must correspond. The
confusion has probably arisen from ‘averages’
being plural, but it is ‘law’ to which the verb
refers. It should be, ‘The law of averages is
too unrealiable...’.
Student example: ‘In ‘The Repressed
Imagination’ by C. Cartwright, one of the
topics he talks about is…’
In this sentence, the verb ‘talks’ is
inappropriate and incorrect, because ‘talking’
is a very different action to ‘writing’.
Student example: ‘Basically, the policy aims to
improve the quality of the service…’
3.8. Using unnecessary words
The word ‘basically’ is becoming increasingly
common in essays, but is inappropriate in the
context of academic writing, because the
purpose is not to reduce things to their most
basic form but to explore issues and ideas in
their full complexity and detail. Making
something ‘basic’ is different to summarising.
Terms like ‘in essence’, ‘to summarise’, or ‘in
short’ are far more academic in tone.
One of the most significant differences you
will notice as your writing improves is a
reduction in superfluous (i.e. unnecessary)
words. The best and most precise writing is
often the simplest, as the author is in full
control of every word. Always ask yourself
whether each word is necessary and whether
it is the best word you could use.
Think about your everyday speech.
However well you may speak, much of
what you say, and the phrases you use, will
be inappropriate for formal written work.
Using the word ‘talk’ as an umbrella term to
refer to any kind of communication is just
one example of this common mistake.
Think carefully about the words you use:
what might they be implying by accident?
Remember that a sentence should usually
contain a single idea or argument; likewise,
a paragraph should contain a single theme
or focus. Pay close attention to where and
how professional writers start new
sentences. Learn how to use semi-colons,
colons, and commas so that you can form
more complex sentences.
3.11. Incorrect use of commas
3.10. Not starting new
sentences when appropriate
In a nutshell, ‘commas act as separators
between parts of a sentence’ (Cutts, 1995: 81).
To this effect, they often need to be used in
pairs. The following is just one example of how
commas are misused (see Swan, 1996: 468470 for a comprehensive list).
If you are unsure whether or not to start a new
sentence, you probably should, especially if
you lack confidence with colons and semicolons, which can be used to make more
complex sentences. If in doubt, keep your
sentences as simple as possible. There is a
famous saying, attributed to Epictetus, the
Greek philosopher:
Student example: ‘Private problems, Mills
believes can often be resolved outside of
There should be a pair of commas in this
sentence, not a single comma. It should read
‘Private problems, Mills believes, can often be
resolved…’. ‘Mills believes’ is a separate
‘clause’ and needs to be separated so that
the sentence makes sense with or without it.
Cutts (1995: 82) explains this nicely: ‘A pair
of commas cordons off information that is an
aside, explanation or addition. Readers can, if
they wish, leapfrog the cordoned-off area and
still make sense of what is said.’
Do not write so that you can be understood,
write so that you cannot be misunderstood.
Student example: ‘The graph shows the
results, after fatigue the score is generally
lower. There are some anomalies, there could
be many different reasons for this.’
In this example, both sentences would be
less confusing if they were separated into two
statements, either by full stops or semi-colons
i.e. ‘The graph shows the results. After fatigue
the score is generally lower. There are some
anomalies. There could be many different
reasons for this.’ Alternatively, the sentences
could be rephrased so that each statement
flows into the next, i.e. ‘The graph shows that
after fatigue the score is generally lower.
There are some anomalies, however, for
which there could be many different reasons.’
see why they are classed as indefinite or
definite. Think carefully about whether you
need to use one, the other, or neither.
3.12. Mixing pronouns
A ‘pronoun’ may sound like something
technical and complex, but it is actually very
simple (see Parts of Speech to clarify your
understanding). Always make sure that your
pronoun matches your noun. Is it the right
number? Is it the right gender? Is it first,
second, or third person?
3.14. Inappropriate or
incorrect use of capital letters
Apart from in people’s names, in titles, and at
the beginning of sentences, capitals (big
letters) should only be used if the word is a
‘proper noun’ rather than a common noun, i.e.
if it is the official name or title for something
(see Parts of Speech to clarify your
Student example: ‘Because society is
changing so rapidly it is easy to understand
why one may feel he cannot cope…’
In this sentence, the author mixes the
pronouns, moving from ‘one’ to ‘he’, which is
very confusing for the reader. A better
sentence would be, ‘Because society is
changing so rapidly it is easy to understand
why people feel that they cannot cope…’
Student example: ‘One day a teacher notices
that the children start missing School and
often arrive late…’
In this example, the author has used capital
letters inappropriately. For example, in the
case of school, the only time it should be
given a capital letter is if its proper name is
being referred to, i.e. Woodlands School, or if
the reference is to a specific school. In the
example, the author was not referring to a
specific school. It is the same with the word
‘department’. If, for example, you are referring
specifically to your department, it should be
‘Department of Psychology’. If you are
referring to departments in general, it should
be ‘departments’.
3.13. Inappropriate use of
definite article
One of the most confusing things about the
English language for some international
students is the ‘definite article’ – otherwise
known as ‘the’ – because some languages do
not have articles.
Student example: ‘To find a sense of reason
instead of drowning in the depths of confusion
the society bestows upon us…’
Correct use of capital letters is quite easy
to understand if you make the time to
learn. Students often have trouble with
capital letters in titles; of essays,
publications, etc. However, there are set
rules that are easy to learn and apply. Take
the time. See Further Reading.
In this sentence, the second occurrence of
the definite article (‘the’ in ‘the society’) is
Although correct use of the definite article is
a common problem among international
students, it is also increasingly common
among home students. Learn the difference
between the definite article (‘the’, e.g. ‘the
house’) and the indefinite article (‘a’, ‘some’,
e.g. ‘a house’ or ‘some houses’) – you can
commas to punctuate the phrase, make the
sentence very confusing for the reader. A pair
of commas clarifies meaning: ‘Many problems
relate directly to the lack of, or lack of
functioning, institutions within society’.
3.15. Using ‘and’ instead of ‘to’
It is an increasingly common mistake to use
‘and’ instead of ‘to’, e.g. ‘I want to try and learn
a new skill’ instead of ‘I want to try to learn a
new skill’. Objections to this particular mistake
may seem irrelevant and old-fashioned, but it
actually alters the meaning of the sentence.
Try to develop your ability to read your
work with fresh and critical eyes.
Empathise with your reader. It may help to
read aloud to yourself; that way you can be
hyper-sensitive to your punctuation, and
test whether it helps or hinders the flow of
your sentences.
Student example: ‘One response of
commissioners was to try and manage
In the example sentence, what the author
actually means is ‘to try to manage demand’.
‘To try’ is an infinitive verb (i.e. a ‘to’ verb)
which needs an additional verb – in this case
‘manage’ – to qualify it. By using ‘and’ instead
of ‘to’, the sentence is actually saying that
there are two actions (two verbs) at work: the
first action is ‘trying’; the second action is
‘managing’. Therefore, the sentence is
effectively saying, ‘One response of
commissioners was to try and then to manage
mySkills, the University’s academic
skills website, features advice,
guidance, and interactive resources
on all aspects of study. Developed
as a joint initiative, everything that
is housed within the site has been
authored by expert academic and
support staff from across the
University. It has a large section on
writing, featuring a short film in
which students give their opinions
and advice on essay writing.
3.16. Insufficient proof-reading
Always proof-read your work and always get
someone else, such as a trusted friend, to
proof-read it for you. Make sure you allow
yourself enough time to do this effectively, i.e.
leave a few days between readings so that
you can read it with fresh eyes. Yes, this
means doing your essays well before the
Student example: ‘Many problems relate
directly to the lack of or lack of functioning
institutions within society’.
Visit mySkills:
Although this sentence makes sense, it could
be misread as a mistake or typo (a
‘typographical error’). The choice of phrasing
(‘lack of or lack of’), and the absence of
4.2. Poor referencing
4. Reasoning
To write well-structured and well-argued
essays, it is crucial that you develop your
ability to introduce and discuss the opinions of
experts in your field.
Aside from the grammatical
errors listed in the previous
section, the most common
mistakes made by first-year
students in their essays arise
from poor practice and decisionmaking relating to reasoning,
structure, argumentation, and
presentation. These have been
grouped together under the
umbrella of Reasoning, but there
is also a separate section on
Structuring an Essay (p. 2).
Student example: ‘In Wright Mills, ‘The
Promise of Sociology’, he identifies several
different personal troubles…’
In this sentence, the use of ‘in’ is incorrect and
the use of ‘he’ is superfluous. It should be
‘Wright Mills, in ‘The Promise of Sociology’,
identifies…’ or ‘In ‘The Promise of Sociology’,
Wright Mills identifies…’ The subject (the
author) and the object (the book) have been
confused: they are seen as one and the same.
NB. Check what the conventions are for your
discipline – it may or it may not be necessary
to include date and title, for example.
4.1. Poor structure
The most common mistakes that students
make in their academic writing relate to
structure, and, if asked, many lecturers would
say that the structure is the most important
element of an essay: without a strong, wellconsidered and well-planned framework –
without a blueprint – it can be extremely
difficult to stay focused and develop your
argument. In most cases, you should have a
plan or an essay outline before you begin
writing. However, it often helps to just get your
head down and write. This is fine – and a
healthy practice! – but always have an
organising structure, whether this comes a bit
later or before you even put pen to paper (or
fingers to keys).
Put aside a few moments to learn and
master some easy techniques for
introducing a reference or citation that you
can rely upon and develop as you gain in
confidence. Pay attention to how
professional writers and academics
introduce references in the published work
that you read.
Many techniques are simple to understand
and apply. For example, one common way
to introduce a reference is: ‘AUTHOR, in
TITLE, argues [or claims or asserts or
states, etc.] that ‘QUOTE’...’ e.g.
Yates, in ‘How to Improve Your Academic
Writing’, argues that ‘the majority of
people have never been encouraged or
have never found a reason to get
passionate about language’ (2008: 2).
Read Structuring an Essay on (p. 2).
4.3. Poor or unclear reasoning
4.5. Speculations and
Above all, perhaps the key to a successful
essay is good reasoning, i.e. each sentence –
and by extension each paragraph – flows
logically into the next, building towards a wellreasoned and well-structured argument.
If you are making a claim that could be
disputed by the reader, make sure you use
some kind of evidence to back it up.
Student example: ‘Without the police force
there would be anarchy on the streets and a
huge increase in crime, which would result in
more individuals being victims of crime.’
Student example: ‘Different groups have
different identities, ways of separating
themselves from others. This leads to
stereotypes. People misunderstand one
another based on their appearance. This
division between people is getting bigger and
more problematic every day.’
While this may be true, without evidence it is
only speculative. It needs to be backed up
with an example or research, e.g. when or
where this was the case.
Although this paragraph makes sense, a
number of assumptions are made by the
author, and the connection between each
sentence is not always explicit, i.e. the
sentences do not progress logically from one
to the next.
Always check each sentence in relation to
the sentence that precedes it to be certain
that there is a direct relationship, and that
the central idea continues to be developed.
4.4. Generalisations
Beware the generalisation! It is often tempting
to get carried away and apply our idea or
opinion to everything, but always be mindful of
exceptions and counter-arguments.
‘Be emotionally neutral: most
academic writing requires you to
stand back and analyse
dispassionately, as an objective
onlooker.’ (Cottrell 2003: 157)
Student example: ‘Nowadays we are more able
to examine ourselves from both a public and
personal viewpoint. We were once dictated to,
in our way of thinking, but now we are free.’
If you are not sure of the difference
between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, look
them up. Objectivity is one of the
cornerstones of academic practice.
The author makes assumptions about time
and place, both past and present, implying
intellectual superiority over the past, and
making a universalisation or generalisation
about freedom of thought.
4.6. Poor choice of vocabulary
4.8. Making indirect
Always check your vocabulary for
appropriateness — and don’t be afraid to use a
dictionary. If you are using a word which has a
number of different meanings and spellings,
always look it up to check that you have used
the correct form (see Commonly Confused
Words, p. 18).
Avoid making indirect assumptions. This can be
difficult because it is not always obvious to us
when we are being presumptuous, especially
when we are trying to be open-minded…
Student example: ‘Just because most tribes are
uncivilised, it does not mean that there are no
civilised tribes.’
Student example: ‘With some institutions
becoming secular, such as religion and
Although the author intends to establish
himself or herself as liberal and not
presumptuous, the statement is premised on
another assumption about ‘most tribes’ which
is not backed up with data or literature. In
addition, ‘civilised’ is also a problematic term
to use because it is value-laden and
The choice of vocabulary in this sentence is
poor, especially the use of ‘secular’ because
‘religion’ and ‘secular’ are opposites.
Therefore, although religions can be
disbanded or become defunct, they cannot
become secular, as ‘secular’ means ‘nonreligious’. The sentence could be rephrased in
a number of ways, e.g. ‘With some
institutions becoming defunct, such as
religion and family …’.
4.9. Inappropriate or
inadvertent use of metaphor
In writing, we sometimes use metaphors
without realising it. A ‘metaphor’ is the term for
a literary technique in which something is
described as being something else, for
example, ‘The moon was a ghostly galleon’.
Metaphors are mostly deliberate and obvious;
in the example, the metaphor reveals something
more about the moon – it describes it, making it
more vivid. However, sometimes poor choice of
vocabulary can lead to an accidental
4.7. Misusing or misquoting a
well-known phrase
Only use phrases that you fully understand
and know are appropriate in a piece of formal
academic work.
Student example: ‘The breakdown of the
atomic family…’
The correct phrase is ‘nuclear family’, but it is
easy to see how the mistake was made.
Student example: ‘We live in a time in which we
are encouraged to question the world and its
When possible, always get a trusted friend
to read your work. I recently saw an advert
for a car in which the seller claimed that,
rather than it being ‘reliable’, his car was in
‘good condition and very liable’.
Although the author may not have been fully
conscious of this, he or she has used a
metaphor that is inappropriate in the
description of the ‘world and its contents’, as
‘contents’ usually refer to vessels or
repositories, and the world is not a vessel.
Avoid using ‘you’ and ‘your’. It sounds too
5. Useful Tips
Avoid abbreviations. Again, write in full.
Use ‘for example’ instead of ‘e.g.’, unless
you are using e.g. or i.e. in parenthesis.
In a nutshell, a good academic essay is
well-researched, well-structured, and
well-argued. However, you will only get a
good mark if you answer the essay
question (read the tip on p. 2). Similarly, if
you have been allowed to chose the title
yourself, make sure it is appropriate.
If you are using acronyms (i.e. NASA)
make sure you write it out in full the first
time you use it (National Aeronautics and
Space Administration).
Your target audience is an intelligent
reader who does not know anything about
the subject but may be familiar with the
discipline and the main theories that are
considered to be common knowledge.
Some tips from George Orwell
from ‘Politics and the English Language’
If you are expected to submit your work
anonymously, make sure you do!
However, make sure that you have
identified yourself in the way that is
preferred by your department, such as by
student number, course code, etc. Make
sure you are clear about this. Ask
someone if necessary.
Be clear about what you are saying
‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that
he writes, will ask himself at least four
questions, thus: What am I trying to say?
What words will express it? What image or
idiom will make it clearer? Is this image
fresh enough to have an effect?’
Avoid using clichéd phrases
‘Modern writing at its worst does not
consist in picking out words for the sake
of their meaning and inventing images in
order to make the meaning clearer. It
consists in gumming together long strips
of words which have already been set in
order by someone else.’
The best academics usually have thick
skins and have learnt not to take harsh
reviews to heart (Times Higher Educational
Supplement, 3-9 July 2008, p. 22); as a
novice academic, it is the same for you.
Feedback is intended to help you improve,
so make the most of it; try not to rest on
your laurels or get downhearted.
Remember that the best writers work very
closely with criticism and the editorial
process (read the tip on p. 10).
Avoid mixing metaphors: think
‘The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a
visual image. When these images clash…
it can be taken as certain that the writer is
not seeing a mental image of the objects
he is naming; in other words, he is not
really thinking.’
Make sure your work is presented in the
house style specified by your department.
Don’t use contractions. Do not use
contractions. Write in full.
Than and then – ‘than’ is used in a
comparison (e.g. ‘Tim is faster than Tom’);
‘then’ refers to a point in time (e.g. ‘it
happened then’).
6. Commonly
Confused Words
There and their – ‘there’ refers to place (e.g.
‘over there’); ‘their’ indicates possession (e.g.
‘their pyjamas’ – i.e. the pyjamas that
belonged to them).
A and an – whereas ‘a’ is used before a
consonant sound (e.g. ‘a boy’, ‘a party’, ‘a
situation’), ‘an’ is used before a vowel sound,
i.e. before a word that begins with the letter a,
e, i, o, or u (e.g. ‘an army’, ‘an old man’); some
people also use ‘an’ before h, as it is
considered to be a ‘weak consonant’. It is easy
to see the practical reason for putting an ‘an’
before a vowel: try saying ‘a army’ aloud – it’s
Beware the Spellchecker!
Although spellchecker facilities in programmes
such as Microsoft Word can undoubtedly be
very useful, they can also create problems,
especially with words that are commonly
confused, such as homophones (words that
sound the same but are spelt differently). A
sentence with the wrong ‘there’ or ‘their’, or
with ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s’, will go unnoticed
because the word – although wrong – does
exist within the language.
Accept and except – ‘to accept’ means ‘to
receive’ (e.g. ‘he accepted the award’);
‘except’ means ‘all but’ (e.g. ‘everyone except
Peter went to the Summer Ball’).
Affect and effect – ‘affect’ either refers to
influence (e.g. ‘his presence affected the
whole class’) or emotional response (e.g. ‘he
showed little affect’); ‘effect’ refers to result
(e.g. ‘he had some serious side effects’).
Make sure that your spellchecker is set to UK
spelling, not American spelling, as there are a
number of important differences. Whereas
American English spells ‘color’, English spells
‘colour’; American English tends to use ‘z’ in
verbs (e.g. ‘analyze’), while English uses ‘s’
(e.g. ‘analyse’). The following webpage may
be helpful:
Cite, sight and site – in the context of essays,
‘cite’ is the commonest of these three
homophones (words which are pronounced
the same but are spelt differently and have
different meanings): ‘to cite’ means to quote
or mention (e.g. ‘citing references’); ‘sight’
refers to the ability to see (e.g. ‘she had bad
eye sight’); ‘site’ refers to a location (e.g. ‘the
building site’).
Don’t ignore the grammar check. When a word
is underlined to indicate that there is
something wrong with the grammar, click on it
and take a moment to read the explanation.
This is a good way to learn about grammar.
Sometimes you can ignore the rule: you will
know whether or not to take the advice once
you’ve read the description.
Complement and compliment – ‘complement’
is used when something completes or finishes
something else, or provides a balance (e.g.
‘the wine complemented the meal’); a
‘compliment’ is an expression of praise (e.g.
‘the lecturer complimented his work’).
There are many, many services and
opportunities on campus, so make sure you
take advantage of them. Ask Student Support
what’s available.
7. Writing
Support at Essex
Writing Fellows
The University is fortunate enough to have two
Writing Fellows from the Royal Literary Fund
who are available to give one-to-one advice on
the practical aspects of writing, whether for
academic purposes or for pleasure. The
Fellows are based in the Department of
Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies (LiFTS) in
room 5A.223, but are available to students
and staff from all departments, across all years
of study. Go to room 5A.201 in the LiFTS
Department to book an appointment.
mySkills is the University’s academic skills
website. It features advice, guidance, and
interactive resources on all aspects of study.
Developed as a joint initiative, everything that
is housed within the site has been authored by
expert academic and support staff at the
University. It has a large section on writing,
featuring a short film in which students give
their opinions and advice on writing essays.
Student Support
Writing Group
Student Support have a number of Study
Strategies Tutors with expertise in academic
skills who you can speak to by appointment.
They also run ‘Strategies for Study’ workshops
throughout the year, so look out for related
publicity or visit the website (URL below). The
same workshops are also run specifically for
students with dyslexia or similar learning
difficulties. Themes include:
If you are experiencing difficulties in writing or
generally find the process difficult, even if you
have no immediate assignment deadlines, the
Writing Group offers a safe and nonjudgemental environment in which to discuss
writing. E-mail: [email protected]
OWLs (Online Writing Labs)
There are a number of writing resources
on the web that are very good, known as
OWLs. These are three of the best. The
OWL at Purdue was the original.
Using University guidance and resources
to support independent learning; Planning
and managing your time effectively
Selective and wider reading; Note-taking
formats; Referencing and Plagiarism
When, how and who to ask for help; Peer
study groups
Keeping track of what works for you:
reviewing, revising and enjoying your study
Bowling Green State University
Purdue University
Grammar Bytes
Workshops are generally scheduled on
Wednesdays. Visit the website for up-to-date
timetables and for more guidance and services.
Northedge, A., The Good Study Guide (New
Edition), The Open University, 2005. *
8. Further
Orwell, G., ‘Politics in the English Language’
in Why I Write, Penguin Books, 2004. * #
You may find the following books helpful.
Those with an asterisk (*) were used in
compiling this booklet. Those with a hash (#)
are strongly recommended.
Partridge, E., Usage and Abusage: A guide to
good English, Hamish Hamilton, London, 6th
edition, 1965.
Partridge, E., You Have a Point There: A guide
to punctuation and its allies, Routledge &
Kegan Paul, London, 1983.
Burchfield, R. W., The New Fower's Modern
English Usage, Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 1996.
Ritter, R. M., New Hart's Rules: The handbook
of style for writers and editors, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 2005.
Butcher, J., Copy-editing: The Cambridge
handbook, Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, 1981.
Strunk, W., The Elements of Style, Filiquarian
Publishing, LLC, 2006. * #
Cook, C. K., Line by Line: How to edit your
own writing, Houghton Mifflin Company,
Boston, 1985.
Swan, M., Practical English Usage, Oxford
University Press, 2nd edition, 1995. *
Cottrell, S., The Study Skills Handbook,
Palgrave, 2nd edition, 2003. *
Truss, L., Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Profile
Books, 2007. * #
Cutts, M., The Plain English Guide, Oxford
University Press, 1995. * #
The Economist, Pocket Style Book, Economist
Publications, London, 1986. #
Evans, H. (ed. Crawford, G.), Essential
English: For journalists, editors and writers,
Pimlico, 2nd revised edition, 2000.
The University of Chicago Press, A Manual of
Style, The University of Chicago Press,
Chicago, 12th edition, 1969.
Fowler, H. W. & Fowler, F. G., The King's
English, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
Hilton, C. & Hyder, M., Getting to Grips with
Punctuation and Grammar, BPP (Letts
Educational) Ltd, London, 1992.
Hilton, C. & Hyder, M., Getting to Grips with
Spelling, BPP (Letts Educational) Ltd,
London, 1992.
Designed and printed by University of Essex Printing Services © 2008
Produced by the Learning and Teaching Unit. Printed on recycled paper.
If you have questions regarding the booklet, please contact Richard Yates.